• Print

An Island in a Cold Sea

Migrants who have arrived by boat from North Africa at the port in Lampedusa, March, 2011
Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images
Migrants who have arrived by boat from North Africa at the port in Lampedusa, March, 2011

As Donald Trump denies entry to the already small number of pre-screened refugees the US had agreed to accept—among them Syrian and Iraqi families fleeing terrorism who have been carefully vetted and approved by the UN Refugee agency and by the US Department of Homeland Security—Europeans face a far more dire situation: the hundreds of thousands of desperate people from North Africa and the Middle East, who, without any UN help, are attempting to reach their shores. Thousands each year die trying.

While countries from Malta to Norway have been shutting their doors to this cataclysmic mass migration, a sixty-year-old Italian named Pietro Bartolo has decided to spend his energy otherwise. Many nights of the year, he heads down from his home to the port of Lampedusa, the tiny Mediterranean island (seven miles by four) of 6,304 souls that marks the southernmost outpost of Italy. Today, as one of the island’s three doctors (including his wife), it falls to him to examine, one by one, the refugees who reach Lampedusa after making the terrible passage across the sea in search of safety: Syrians, Afghans, Somalis, Eritreans, Senegalese, Nigerians, the whole world. He gives first aid to the living and confirms that the dead are dead. He has delivered babies on the quayside. The work is brutal and unrelenting, and it comes on top of his normal rounds. But he believes he has no alternative. As he tells filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi in the central episode of the latter’s haunting documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), “If we want to stop these people, we need to create the conditions that will prevent them from dying of hunger or war. In the meantime, we have the duty, as human beings, to take them in.”

In these dismal weeks when Italians have been hammered by earthquakes, blizzards, and avalanches, as well as the recent collapse of their government and a crumbling transatlantic alliance, the news that Fuocoammare has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary provides some welcome respite, drawing international attention to this beleaguered island’s perpetual crisis. 

Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia and Malta than it is to the rest of Italy, and it is hardly a fount of wealth and opportunity, with little to offer but its rocky terrain, its tourist hotels, and its endless waters. Pietro Bartolo could only study medicine by spending years in Sicily. But any migrant landing on these shores gains a foothold in Europe, backed by the resources of a country of nearly 60 million people. (Malta’s population, by contrast, is slightly over 420,000, and the government, conditioned by the island’s immemorial tradition as a fortress, has tried to send migrants back.) Hence the leaky migrant boats launched by ruthless human traffickers in Libya aim by preference for Sicily and Lampedusa, and the Italian Navy has been engaged since 2004 in rescue operations along this stretch of the Mediterranean.

Dr. Pietro Bartolo, Fire at Sea, 2016
Stemal Entertainment/01 Distribution/Kino Lorber
Dr. Pietro Bartolo, Fire at Sea, 2016

In fact, Lampedusa’s limestone plateau has been a Mediterranean way station ever since the Phoenicians set sail from the coast of modern Lebanon, following shoals of tuna across the open sea. The Greeks came next, and then the Romans, who set up a factory to make garum, a condiment of fermented fish guts that was indispensable for Roman cuisine. Berbers followed from North Africa; Byzantine Christians from the remnants of the Roman Empire, clashing with Arab Muslims from the area of present-day Tunisia; and Norman invaders, Vikings transplanted to northern France. Ottoman pirate raids carried off the island’s population in the mid-sixteenth century, just before the battles of Malta (1565) and Lepanto (1571) divided the Mediterranean between Christian West and Ottoman East. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the island’s feudal lords, the Sicilian Tomasi family, brought in new settlers, largely Maltese farmers and fisherman, and briefly leased Lampedusa to Britain in the wake of Napoleon’s conquests. In 1840, the Princes of Lampedusa sold their property to the Kingdom of Naples, which joined the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Today, the Lampedusani bear a mix of Italian and Maltese surnames. Their weathered faces reflect both the cultural mixtures of the mid-Mediterranean—Phoenician, Greek, Arab, Norman, Spanish, Sub-Saharan, Italian—and the rigors of a life governed by the moods and rhythms of the sea.

Along with the caprices of the sea, the island has had to reckon disproportionately with the caprices of human history, like pirate raids and entrepreneurial schemes: the Roman garum factory, British plans to grow barley in the nineteenth century, contemporary tourism. Inevitably, Lampedusa served as a landing stage for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, and in 1972, only eleven years after electricity came to the island, the United States Coast Guard took over the western part for an immense transmitter station for the LORAN-C radio navigating system. In 1986, a Libyan missile attack prompted NATO to take control of the facility, under Italian command. The transmitter continued in operation until 1994, and was decommissioned in 1995, supplanted by satellites. 

Italians have been conditioned by centuries of foreign domination and capricious government to extend a hospitable hand to people in distress, and to find places in an extensive unofficial economy for off-the-record workers. Affluence followed by economic decline, together with the rise of movements like the explicitly racist Northern League and the authoritarian Five Star Movement, have poisoned the old picture of peasant generosity, but in general Italy is still relatively kind to strangers. An operation called Mare Nostrum, sponsored by the Italian government, ran between October 2013 and October 2014 to notable effect, saving some 15,000 lives, but the costs—some $140 million for a single year—were more than financially troubled Italy could maintain. (By a grim irony, the two European countries most affected by the refugee crisis, Italy and Greece, are also two of the most vulnerable economies in the creaky European Union.) Since 2014, an Italian-guided European effort called Operation Triton has been deploying ships from the European Union to intercept boats in distress, often bringing the migrants to Lampedusa’s refugee center, a facility improvised on the abandoned site of an old NATO radar station. This is where they meet Pietro Bartolo and his colleagues, who examine each person one by one, living or dead, and, every so often, a beloved pet that has survived the cruel journey.

Migrants arriving from North Africa, Lampedusa, March, 2011
Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images
Migrants arriving from North Africa, Lampedusa, March, 2011

Rosi spent a year and a half on the island filming both the daily routines of the locals and the daring, dangerous exploits of the naval teams of Operation Triton, riding along with the rescue crew on several expeditions, at one point joining them on board a derelict, barely floating ship with 150 corpses packed below decks. He presents his assembled footage without commentary, letting the people of Lampedusa, the migrants, the rescuers, and the dead account for themselves, fixing his camera’s lens on the island’s gigantic circling radar antenna as it scans the nighttime sea. (This is not the old LORAN-C transmitter, but rather a new installation by the Italian Guardia di Finanza, the anti-smuggling police, on the promontory of Capo Grecale.) Radiation from the machine’s unblinking eye must surely present a health hazard for the people of Lampedusa (see the petition), but who has time to think about long-term consequences when the present presses in so relentlessly? Here and now, the radar saves lives. 

Rosi’s protagonists include, along with Doctor Bartolo, the twelve-year-old Samuele Pucillo, a fisherman’s son who suffers from seasickness and spends his spare time making slingshots, practicing his skill on prickly pear cactuses and small birds. With the birds, he has developed a hunter’s intimacy, mimicking their chirps and blending into their habitat, but we never see him harm anything but the fat, spiny leaves of prickly pear that he and his friend have carved with jack-o-lantern faces. With his gravelly voice and his serious mien, Samuele is a magnetic personality, short, scrappy, and voraciously alive; Rosi’s camera lingers on him as he devours a plate of spaghetti in noisy slurps. Doctor Bartolo cares for him, too; the boy suffers from anxiety that gives him shortness of breath and a lazy eye—one more obstacle that Samuele must face in growing up on the harsh limestone plateau of Lampedusa, just as he must eventually to go to sea to make a living, no matter how sick he feels in the back of his father’s fishing boat.   

As Rosi shows indelibly, life on Lampedusa means hard work, sparse comfort, and lacerating beauty: the beauty of the sea, of nature, of human ties. He follows an elderly matron, Maria Costa, as she phones in to the local disc jockey to dedicate requests to the people who matter in her life, including the song “Fuocoammare,” its title taken from the flaring disaster-at-sea signal that everyone in this maritime community understands all too well. In many ways, the spirit of these Lampedusani resembles that of their Maltese neighbors, whose culture still remains concentrated on the essential values imposed by a modest standard of living. Their world is more reminiscent of Italy a generation ago than of the contemporary atmosphere, at least in large cities. They are used to pulling people back from the deep; their “law of the sea” commands that they help anyone, everyone, in trouble. Danger has come, historically, from fleets, not from shipwrecks.

Samuele Pucillo, Fire at Sea, 2016
Stemal Entertainment/01 Distribution/Kino Lorber
Samuele Pucillo, Fire at Sea, 2016

Maria makes another request to the DJ as she prepares a coffee for her husband with all the loving attention of a Japanese tea ceremony; the song is an old Sicilian ballad that begins jauntily and then moves swiftly into a piercing minor key, the legacy of Greek tragedy and Arabic ghazals, of all the people and cultures that have passed through these ancient islands. To watch Maria make the bed in her spare little house is to watch her perform an act of pure devotion with regal dignity.

In the meantime, at the refugee center, a stream of new arrivals is examined, swathed in metallic thermal blankets that make them look like space aliens, and hurried on to their dormitory. A group of Nigerian Christians at Mass relive the horrors of the crossing, chanting to God, “We drink our own piss!” This draught of extremity has split their lives in two; before, they were human beings, but now they stand before God as people who have drunk their own waste, altered in ways they sense but do not yet understand. Each of their stories is a searing tragedy, but they come by the dozens and the hundreds, starving, smelly, sick, terrified, and even the mighty heart of Doctor Bartolo cannot encompass them all. 

Gianfranco Rosi has borne eloquent witness to this urgent human drama. Pietro Bartolo continues to dedicate his life to healing his neighbors, from Samuele Pucillo to thousands of unknown citizens of the wide world, inspired by the Hippocratic Oath and his own powerful Christian faith. And he feels it is his duty to do so, regardless of where the people he is rescuing have come from and who they are. As he told the journalist Lidia Tilotta, in the new book Lacrime di Sale (Tears of Salt):

Sometimes I hear a distinction made between refugees and economic migrants. As if dying of hunger were better than dying of war. I think it’s worse, because dying of deprivation takes months and months. So for me drawing this distinction is totally out of place. They are all people who leave their countries because they are forced to by the things they tell us about: violence, torture, persecution, poverty.

These people, and the people to whom they have tried to restore a sense of humanity, need not only to be heard, but to be included. The great migration is happening now, with effects we can feel all over Italy. No country, least of all Italy or Greece, can face the cataclysm alone. All during the Oscar ceremony, and long after the red carpet has been rolled up and put away—long after the US and some of its northern European allies have given up on refugees—the radar antenna of Lampedusa will be spinning, scanning the seas for more lost souls.


Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea is now playing in the US and is available for viewing online.